Development Education

To what extent could low fee private schools aid development in The Republic of South Sudan?

Originally posted on May 9, 2021 @ 5:48 am


Education is of paramount importance to the successful development of a nation and has been described as an enabler of development (Szekely & Mason 2019) by facilitating economic and democratic participation (Sen 1999). This essay will use the theories of neoliberalism, as defined by Milton Friedman (1951), and the capability approach, as defined by Amartya Sen (1999), to examine the role of low fee private schools (LFPS) in development of The Republic of South Sudan (South Sudan). As a new and fragile state South Sudan it is at an early stage of economic development. Combined with complex geography and cultural and linguistic diversity there are clear challenges to government provision of education. This section provides a brief introduction to the key concepts. Section 2 summarises the literature on LFPS and section 3 provides background on South Sudan. In section 4 I analyse the role of LFPS in South Sudan through the lenses of neoliberalism and the capability approach. Finally, in section 5 I provide a conclusion.

A state is fragile when “state structures lack political will and/or capacity to provide the basic functions needed for poverty reduction, development and to safeguard the security and human rights of their populations.”  (OECD 2007, page 2). Fragile states can provide a case study for the role of LFPS in development if their governments struggle to finance, produce or regulate private education. As documented in the literature lack of government provision in some countries has led to the privatization-by-default model where growth in the private sector fills a gap in needs as opposed to planned government policy (Vergeret al2018).

     LFPS are defined by Verger et al(2018), “as private schools that have been set up and owned by an individual or group of individuals for the purpose of making a profit and are supposed to be ‘affordable’ for low-income families” (pp 256). It is important to note that many LFPS are not necessarily bastions of wealth and privilege. Many are located in slums or deprived inaccessible areas and families choose them for a variety of reasons outlined below. Studies suggest they have been growing in number, in a variety of contexts, over the last thirty years (Tooley et al2011). LFPS can have an important role to play in the development of fragile states as initial providers of basic education. Beyond this, the role of these schools need careful consideration by government as they could represent allies in development. Where there is diversity of culture and language LFPS may provide opportunity for communities to choose education models of value to them, and for children to be taught in their mother tongue. In some geographic regions it may be more efficient for governments to finance education and regulate curriculum, allowing the private sector to build the physical schools. LFPS can play an important role in providing choice for families and communities where trust in the ruling government may be lacking, particularly after a civil war. However, there are issues of equity and efficiency in ensuring basic education for all that need to be carefully considered. Decisions about the role of LFPS and governments need to aim to maximise equity and quality.

Low Fee Private Schools

LFPS have been studied in a variety of contexts over the last three decades and there have been two major reviews of these studies, one funded by DFID (Day Ashley et al 2014) followed up by Akmal et al (2019), and a second funded by Ark Education Partnerships Group (undated). Champions of education by LFPS claim that private schooling increases the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of school systems whilst giving individual families choice (Tooley 2009). Detractors write about the commoditization of human relationships, the placing of profit before children’s education as well as the lack of solid empirical evidence to suggest the claims that outcomes from private schooling are necessarily better (Unterhalter et al 2020; Akmal et al 2019). The two major reviews of all the evidence to date are agnostic, highlighting a lack of rigorous empirical evidence demonstrating either the impact or the lack thereof that LFPS have. The debate about their role therefore continues and I provide a brief overview of some of the specific literature in the following paragraphs.

In Pakistan, LFPS have been shown to increase the number of students enrolled in school nationally. In their study, Andrabi, Das and Khwaja (2008) show that LFPS are able to improve test scores in English, mathematics and Urdu compared to state schools and they can increase the number of children attending school because many of these schools are set up in villages that do not have a government school already. They provide access to education for marginalised area. However, 75% of these schools are primary and operate by employing unqualified teachers who are paid relatively low wages. This specific study is highlighted by Carr-Hill and Sauerhaft (2019) as part of general review of literature of LFPS operating in India and Pakistan. They highlight the lack of attention in most studies to issues that the model of LFPS raises including: 1) exploitation through low wages for teachers and high profits 2) gender disempowerment through lack of qualifications of mostly female teachers who work with precarious employment conditions 3) detriment to the education profession by the employment of underqualified teachers as being compared to qualified, autonomous, well respected teachers. These are very important concerns.

In their study of private schooling amongst poor families in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda Alcott & Rose (2016) found that private schooling does little to improve the educational outcomes of the poorest children. Whilst they found, in line with other studies, that private schooling can improve education outcomes compared to state schooling, the authors were concerned about the limited effects that private schooling seems to have an ameliorating education inequality between rich and poor. Their study doesn’t comment on whether public schools do this and, I suggest, highlights the importance of cultural capital within families, something that is often overlooked in the debate on the role of LFPS in education.

Woodhead et al (2013) found that private schools can promote inequality as families send boys to private schools keeping girls in state school which was considered to be poorer quality. Pinnock (2013) found families use private schools because government schools are considered low quality, while other authors claim that LFPS are of poor quality as well (Mehrotra and Panchamukhi 2006).  Tooley et al (2010) claim that there is little empirical evidence that LFPS are of poor quality, with assertions being based on assumptions and anecdotal observations. Studies across a variety of countries challenge this view by providing empirical econometric evidence for the superior quality in terms of outcomes of LFPS (Tooley & Dixon, 2006; Tooley 2007; Tooley et al 2010; Tooley et al2011). They claim that results in English and mathematics are higher in LFPS and that there is less teacher absenteeism. This is important for development because these studies suggest the LFPS may provide higher quality education for lower unit costs. Tooley (2009) suggests that LFPS are more efficient because of high levels of corruption and teacher absenteeism in publicly funded education systems.

Republic of South Sudan

The world’s newest country, South Sudan, is a land locked country bordering Sudan, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Kenya. It is composed of 10 states, 60 indigenous ethnic groups and 80 linguistic partitions (UN 2021) and gained independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011 after a 22-year civil war. Peace in South Sudan has been short lived with a civil war, sparked by tribal tensions, erupting in 2013 and lasting until 2020, leaving approximately 400,000 people dead in its wake (Checchi et al 2018). Added to this backdrop of endemic ethnic conflict, there are persistent problems of a lack of infrastructure and seasonal floods that can render up to 60% of the country inaccessible for up to six months of the year (Ministry of General Education and Instruction 2017). According to data from the World Bank (2021) South Sudan’s population currently stands just below 11 million with 82% of the population defined as being in poverty. The GNI for South Sudan stands at 1090 USD.

The Global Partnership for Education (2012) notes that the educational situation in South Sudan is unusually severe; the country has a 27% adult literacy rate, one of the lowest in the world, learning materials are in short supply, and a massive demand for education has led to a shortage of trained teachers. Teacher shortage is highlighted as one of the main drivers of poor-quality education. Added to this, there is a very low school enrolment rate of 73% for primary enrolment and only 11% for secondary (World Bank 2021). These data on infrastructure and education suggest significant challenges to the Government of South Sudan’s ability to provide the basic quality education entitled to its citizens. That being said UNICEF (2019) highlighted some recent key achievements for education in the country including the development of a national curriculum, the printing of textbooks to support it and the facilitation of final year primary exams in opposition-controlled areas.

Research by Longfield and Tooley (2013) prior to the civil war show that there was an increase in the number of LFPS institutions in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, up to 2013, the date of their report and the year that civil war broke out. This trend in the capital mirrors observations made in other low-income contexts (Tooley 2009). In Juba, 84% of nursery schools and 76% of primary schools were private. For secondary schools the enrolment number was evenly split between state and private schools, but at that time the government was only providing roughly 30% of the total number of institutions. Government schools were primarily located in the urban centre of Juba with the number of private schools increasing the further away from the city centre one travelled. The private sector was also noted as employing around 65% of the teaching workforce.

Longfield and Tooley (2013) note that the increase in private schools is a dividend of peace but it is unclear how the 2013-2020 civil war has affected LFPS. Reliable data from South Sudan is lacking but it is likely that the number of schools will have decreased as a consequence of the civil war, particularly in areas of conflict. The General Education Strategic Plan 2017-2022 (Ministry of General Education and Instruction 2017) stresses the importance of the role of private providers in education provision. The plan outlines how the ministry [of education] “will promote low-cost community/faith-based/privately owned ECDE [Early Childhood Development Education] centres in underserved states.” (ibid pp 52) The plan also outlines the role that the private sector has to play in building schools and constructing classrooms. “The ministry will also encourage private education providers to establish secondary boarding schools, especially in states where none currently exist.” (ibid pp 64) There is also a role specified for private actors in teacher training and claims that the Private School Policy will ensure that there are minimum quality standards.

South Sudan is an ethnically and linguistically diverse fragile state, with high levels of poverty, low levels of educational enrolment and a recent peace treaty. Added to this there is a lack of infrastructure and difficulties with access to remote regions. The government is constrained in its ability to provide finance and regulate education. It is likely that in this vacuum there will once again be privatization by default as local entrepreneurs bring LFPS to their communities. The question remains as to what role these private enterprises can play in the development of South Sudan and in providing education for all its citizens. It is this question that I turn to now through the lens of neoliberalism first followed by that of the capability approach.

Friedman’s Neoliberalism & Sen’s Capability Approach


Several authors have documented the rise of neoliberal economic views. Harvey (2005) distinguishes between “embedded” liberalism and neoliberalism. In the latter, the role of government is confined to providing a legal and regulatory framework for the free market to flourish and nothing more. In this way, governments enforce agreed laws about private property and trading, acting as referee in order to ensure that the market remains free. In embedded liberalism, corporate and entrepreneurial interests are surrounded by a web of regulation, both social and political. Harvey stresses that the core assumption in neoliberalism is that maintaining market freedom is the best way for a government to guarantee the rights and freedoms of individuals. Thus, all things should be marketized, even education. Milton Friedman, one of the founders of this approach to economic organisation, considered neoliberalism to be a normative theory where the role of the state in society is reduced to the role of an umpire whose job is to maintain fair gameplay. In 1951 he wrote “Neo-liberalism would accept the nineteenth century liberal emphasis on the fundamental importance of the individual. It would seek to use competition among producers to protect consumers from exploitation, competition among employers to protect workers and owners of property, and competition among consumers to protect the enterprises themselves. The state would police the system, establish conditions favourable to competition and prevent monopoly” (Friedman 1951 pp 3). The concern underlying this thinking is the protection of individual freedom and to encourage individual responsibility. Indeed, writing throughout the Cold War in America, Friedman stressed the importance of freedom of the individual from interference by the state, and he saw markets as the best way for individuals to express their freedom of preference. From this perspective a fragile state like South Sudan represents almost a perfect model of neoliberal principles.

It could be argued that neoliberalism is not one theory but a group of theories all of which have had diverse impacts on education and development (Unterhalter 2020). In this sense Friedman’s view is simply one among many views of what neoliberalism is, with other authors and experts stressing different emphases. Sometimes these different ideas have critiqued other theories applied in development and education, sometimes they have complimented them (Unterhalter 2020). All neoliberal theories are part of the liberal capitalist paradigm of development. Theories from this paradigm like modernization theory and human capital theory (McGowan 2020) view development as being economic catch up for less economically developed countries (McGowan 2020). According to neoliberalism the route from education to development is deregulation of the education market. This deregulation removes barriers to private providers stimulating economic investment in the sector. Competition drives up quality of education. Better education means that individuals can get better jobs and the economy of the country can grow.

Friedman’s neoliberalism favours private providers in education and he would agree generally with arguments made by Tooley (2009). When discussing education Friedman (1962) considered private schools to be the most efficient way to guarantee quality education for all. He noted the difference of education to other marketable goods due to its “neighbourhood” effects. These he defines as “circumstances under which the action of one … yields significant gains to other individuals for which it is not feasible to make them compensate him” (Friedman 1962 pp 85-86). Friedman asserts that “the education of my child contributes to your welfare by providing a stable and democratic society” (Friedman 1962 pp 86) and because of this particular effect it is important for a government to take some responsibility for the provision of basic citizenship education that promotes literacy, numeracy and a belief in the shared values of a society. He asserts that the best way for a government to meet this responsibility and also promote the freedom of families to select the most suitable education for their children, is through financing education but not necessarily nationalising or producing education. To do this he advocates for the provision of vouchers to families which they can spend at any school they choose. These schools would be mostly privately run, although the government could compete in this market too if it so chose.

Neoliberalism is concerned that an overreaching state will substitute collective judgements, for those of individuals free to choose (Harvey 2005). Friedman (1962) highlights positive neighbourhood effects of education; he also recognises the inherent tension between independence of thought and government involvement in education in order to deliver these neighbourhood effects. Governments have used education policy to indoctrinate citizens directly in cases like Pakistan and India (Joshi 2010; Lall 2008), or indirectly in the case of the Jihadist curriculum developed by the University of Nebraska, with US government financial support, for deployment in Mujahedeen refugee camps (Burde 2014). There are also cases where government policy and regulation has led to the closing of vital education programs for minority groups like nomadic herders (Szekely & Mason 2019). Lack of trust in government if it is controlled by a different ethnic group, is a genuine concern for communities in South Sudan.

Where multiple divisions along linguistic and ethnocultural lines exist communities in South Sudan may not want to have the government dictate what their children learn and in what language they learn. Instead of the government, which may not be representative of some communities, imposing an education paradigm, a more sensitive, peaceful solution may be to allow small private providers embedded within specific communities to provide this basic education. Teachers in these schools could be drawn from the local community and would speak the language of the children and their parents.

For Friedman LFPS may present the optimal solution for meeting education provision although he would argue that the government still has a responsibility for financing education for all. This is to ensure that all citizens get access to the basic education that promotes a stable society. In South Sudan this would mean finding mechanisms by which funds could be made available to individual families in these communities, for them to use with private providers of education. For Friedman, this would have two major effects in a society like South Sudan where stable, democratic society is lacking. Firstly, the promotion of competition in the education market would ensure quality. Parents that are not happy with the provision of one school would be able to choose another. Schools with weaker outcomes for their students would soon see themselves out of business. Secondly, parents would be able to choose schools that met their family’s linguist and ethno-cultural values. This could help to get more children into education if their parents were to keep them out of government schools due to lack of trust in the government. These factors combined could serve to generate a peaceful society further down the road as more children gain access to basic citizenship education and develop shared values of what it means to be South Sudanese. This assumes that the government would need to provide some limited oversight of the curriculum.

Whilst there are clear benefits to allowing families in South Sudan freedom to choose the education options for their children, there should be some government involvement to ensure that a stable society develops. Different ethnic groups need help to develop trust between each other and forge a shared identity of what it means to be South Sudanese. This can be achieved through careful planning by the government. This is not in contradiction to neoliberal views which argue for state intervention to protect citizens. Issues such as language learning and citizenship identity need to be addressed and there is a body of literature beyond the scope of this essay that offers insight.

South Sudan is a low income, fragile state which has only recently ended a civil war. Government regulation is therefore reduced or non-existent and the education system is undeveloped. Because of this the government will likely be unable to effectively provide a quality nationalised education system in the short to medium term. LFPS have an important role to play from a neoliberal perspective. By providing vital access to basic education for communities they can contribute to the development of stable, literate communities. They can provide jobs and investment in those communities. They provide families with freedom of choice and could potentially enrol students in education where families may have been distrustful of education provided by the state. For the neoliberal the government of South Sudan should encourage this activity and as time progresses it should work towards financing basic education with funds payable to the families and redeemable with the education providers. In South Sudan it may not be helpful for the government to directly monitor the curriculum but instead an independent body could be set up, comprised of individuals from all ethnic groups to ensure that the basic requirements of South Sudanese citizenship education are met.

 The Capability Approach

Sen’s capability approach (1999) broadens the definition of development from the eradication of poverty in economic terms to a “process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” (pp 3). This definition of development focuses attention on the idea of justice and the removal of “unfreedoms”. In this approach poverty is defined as capability deprivation. Development is achieved through the removal of these deprivations or the removal of unfreedom. A developed society is one in which individuals have the ability to pursue functionings they have reason to value. Sen recognises the importance that social welfare plays in enhancing an individual’s capabilities. To Sen, a person’s capabilities are their real freedoms to achieve their potential functioning’s. For example, an individual might have potential, academically and physically, to become a doctor, but their capability to pursue this functioning (treating illness) will depend on the right access to education, nutrition, finance as well as being born into a country with medical education programmes.

This approach puts the focus on individuals as the ends of development and not as the means of development. Sen argues that specific attention to the needs of individuals is important for development and highlights the role of society in maximising freedoms by proper provision of public and semi-public goods. The route to development for Sen is the creation of a society where people and communities have the freedom to pursue the actions they have reason to value.  This way of thinking has relevance for South Sudan as different linguistic and ethno-cultural groups may suffer from very different capability deprivations. They may also place value on a different mix of opportunities and paying attention to these will be important in securing a lasting peace between different communities from which further development can progress. The plurality of pathways to development that the capability approach stresses can help to bring cohesion by allowing different communities to identify shared values.

            Sen (1999 pp 128) defines education as a semi-public good. Public goods are ones that people consume together and are not easily submitted to market mechanisms. Education is a semi-public good: individuals consume and benefit from their own education but society as a whole benefits from having educated citizens. Education contributes to reductions in fertility rate, child mortality rates and other positive indicators of a healthy society. Increases in general literacy can generate positive social change as the foundation of democratic participation. This highlights the case for the state provision of these semi-public goods beyond what markets on their own can foster. Thinking about the role of LFPS in the development of South Sudan from this approach requires thinking about the extent to which, and under what circumstances, LFPS may contribute to either increased capability deprivation or the removal of unfreedom.

            LFPS can contribute to the removal of unfreedoms in South Sudan. Based on the data cited above, the government lacks the ability to provide, finance or regulate schools, and LFPS may represent the only access to education for entire communities in the immediate aftermath of a civil war. To Sen, education is an enabler or enhancer of other freedoms, as it allows people to decide how to live and to choose what to value. Without education, there is a severe limitation placed on people in terms of the other freedoms that they can achieve. LFPS provide some way to prevent a lack of education. A lack of education should be thought of as a preventable deprivation.

However, with cost, comes equity of access issues. Individual families will differ in their ability to pay, indicating that some will more readily benefit from these schools than others, creating some level of inequality between families. It may also be the case that LFPS may contribute to equity issues within families. Parents with many children may prioritize some of them over others, normally their sons, as noted earlier. Tooley (2009) highlights how many of the LFPS he studied offer free places for students that cannot afford to attend. While in the short term in the context of South Sudan, this may provide some reassurance, reliance on the benevolence of LFPS proprietors may not be an adequate answer in the long run. However, state provision of education is not necessarily the answer to ensure that all children get access to school either. Government schools are often located in urban centres and easy to reach areas, less so in inaccessible rural regions and in slums (Tooley & Longfield 2013, Tooley 2009). This is particularly relevant in a country like South Sudan that suffers severe flooding making many rural areas inaccessible. Tooley (2009) notes how parents in the Makoko slum in Lagos, Nigeria, do not want their daughters navigating the alleyways on the walk to government schools for fear of abduction and so would rather send them to LFPS available to them. When the South Sudanese government is able to finance education, it may be more efficient to provide vouchers, as proposed by Tooley (2009) to ensure that all children can access school, instead of relying on the building of government schools in hard-to-reach areas. LFPS can contribute to the removal of unfreedom in South Sudan, initially with no government schools available and later so long as the government focusses on making LFPS accessible for all children. Focussing on access to LFPS may be an equitable and efficient way to get children into school as South Sudan develops.

Another way that LFPS may contribute to the decrease of unfreedom is by providing educational choice. In the context of an ethnically and linguistically diverse country like South Sudan this could provide an avenue for social cohesion. LFPS could cater for the specific linguistic needs and wants of their communities. This could allow linguistically diverse areas of South Sudan to educate children in their mother tongue or another language, for instance. This bottom up, grass roots approach could have important peace building effects, as communities would not have something seemingly imposed on them from another ethno-cultural group. It is also entirely in line with Sen’s capability approach. Beyond basic education in literacy and numeracy, schools could develop a specific focus on technical or other valued subjects, for example agriculture, if this is something that individuals in a community have reason to value, similar to the education model outlined by Nyerere (1967). In this way they can provide a choice of educational provision that individuals “have reason to value”.  LFPS allow choice for children, parents and the wider community. Parents can choose which provider to send their children to, which could guarantee quality (Tooley 2009) as perceived poor quality at a school could encourage parents to take their children elsewhere. Importantly, this choice, allows schools to cater for the values and needs of their communities.

If private schooling leads to the reduction of human relationships to a commodity (Unterhalter 2020), this is clearly at odds with the capability approach. When the South Sudan government is strengthened, one could argue that these private providers may contribute to capability deprivation, where state education is available and the LFPS are offering a qualitatively poorer outcome for the students they serve. LFPS aim to be profit making after all and it is suggested that unscrupulous owners can aim to maximise profits, by reducing the quality of the provision, whether that is through reducing the learning resources, or facilities available to students or through exploitation of the work force as noted in the literature review. Sen (1999 pp 265) documents the problems of capitalism without the institutions and behavioural norms to ensure market practices are kept fair. Without correct oversight and behaviour market actors can have damaging effects. It is true that a fundamental flaw with the model of LFPS is its reliance on unqualified, low paid teachers. Some, as noted above, see this as exploitation. It could also be argued that LFPS are providing important economic opportunities to individuals who would otherwise not have any. It cannot be ignored that in South Sudan, the opportunity for adults to work and earn a living is also an important capability.

            In terms of educational quality one of the key arguments for the accountability of LFPS according to Tooley (2009) is that parents can take their children elsewhere. School owners know this and are accountable to parents to ensure that their provision is of high quality. One way they can attract more families is by having higher quality and better resource provision (Tooley 2009). Whilst global monopolistic capitalism may have contributed to deprivation, many LFPS are small businesses not global brands. They are embedded within and depend on their local communities’ good will for survival.

            A major source of capability deprivation according to Sen (1999) is that states that abandon the production of education run the risk of being trapped as economically poorer states (Sen 1999 pp 143). Citing the economic history of the world’s Northern nations as well as the more recent economic development of the Asian Tigers, he argues that these countries developed via relatively large state investments in education and other sectors considered to be public or semi-public goods. These investments allowed the bulk of society to engage in shared economic and democratic expansion. Therefore, it is important that the government of South Sudan takes responsibility for the education of its citizens for these reasons and to ensure a stable society. This does not mean that LFPS should be maligned. With vouchers to enable access and, further down the line, regulation of curriculum contents, to ensure that all South Sudanese children develop basic skills and shared values, LFPS could be an important tool for the government to reach inaccessible areas and respect the wishes and values of local communities. It is cost effective and easier to supply a curriculum and learning materials than shipping in building materials to inaccessible areas.


            Neoliberalism claims that free markets lead to economic development by deregulation from government that stimulates investment in markets. For the capability approach the route from education to development is improving the substantive freedoms that people have in order to pursue opportunities they have reason to value. Both these theories recognise that education brings benefits to individuals as well as their communities and society as a whole. At the theoretical level it is these external effects, beyond the individual that may justify the state provision of education. In reality the picture is often more nuanced. Governments, communities and families have specific contexts that effect decisions about what is best for development. It may be that families choose LFPS because of perceived faults with the government education system and better outcomes of children in private schools (Tooley 2009). It may be that government schools can be poor in quality, with absent unaccountable teachers, who may not even speak the same language of the children they serve. It is entirely possible that government schools are not always free and are not always easily accessible to some communities (Tooley 2009). As a new country it will take time for the government of South Sudan to develop a quality education system. LFPS have a crucial role to play in providing access to education initially, especially where government schools are lacking. In the medium to long term, the government could work with these schools to finance access, with targeted vouchers and mandating minimum basic curriculum content. This content could include some shared values of what it means to be a South Sudanese citizen that encompasses views from all communities. Finally, in the long run, the government could have a role in inspecting schools to ensure accountability. If these targets are met, there is no essential need for the government to produce education itself, and it may not be particularly efficient for it to do so with so much linguistic, geographic and ethnocultural diversity. LFPS have the potential to meet these diverse needs more flexibly than the government. These recommendations are in line with both neoliberalism and the capability approach. So long as the focus remains on making an efficient and equitable education system, LFPS may have role to play throughout the development process.


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